In October 2012 Ker & Downey’s own pioneering spirit, Vice President of Operations Reid Bader, set off to explore the abundant wildlife and dense, virtually uninhabited rain forests of the Republic of the Congo, one of Africa’s best-kept secrets, and the unfamiliar wildlife haven of the Lamai Triangle in Tanzania’s northern Serengeti. Read about it here and in the current issue of Ker & Downey’s BESPOKE magazine.
Ker & Downey’s Congo is miles from anything one might see on news reports from the region – more than 900 miles if we’re counting. The Republic of the Congo is a small, stable democracy separate from the more turbulent Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Odzala-Kokoua National Park is far removed from the more populated regions in the south.
The northern rain forests of the Congo Basin form the second largest collection of rain forests in the world, second only to the Amazon. This is Joseph Conrad’s Africa, the Dark Heart of the continent that still remains wild and rugged. There are no trails here, no paths cut between acres of marshy high grasses and lush marantaceae. There are also no roads – preparing for this trek is not unlike preparing for a duck hunt in a backwoods marsh. High-water waders will serve you well. The only trails you’ll find have been forged by the animals, like an “elephant highway” through a swath of thick mud, a route so deteriorated when compared to its forested surroundings that it appears to have seen thousands of years and untold numbers of rough gray feet.
Surprises are plenty on a trek through the uncut foliage, and guides and researchers know this jungle as a second home. They’re in tune with the flora, fauna, and the subtle signs that, yes, there will be activity ahead. Frasier, the guide who accompanied Reid on his trip, seemed to have a sixth sense fixed on the wildlife of the area. As they were trekking, Frasier stopped the group and conjured a Narina Trogan out of the thick greenery to land on a particularly attractive branch just above their heads. This is the kind of magic one can expect from Odzala: elusive birds and curious creatures appearing all of a sudden as if they had wondered into the frame of a painting. The park is home to 16 species of primates, including chimpanzees, black-and-white colobuses, mangabeys, and western lowland gorillas. The gorillas are new enough to habituation to be more cautious than the larger silverbacks and mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda. Forest elephants and buffalo are among the other wildlife found here, distinguished from their cousins elsewhere on the continent by their smaller statures and horns and tusks that have adapted to the jungle surroundings, curling back behind the buffaloes’ heads and pointing down toward the elephants’ feet to avoid snagging on the tangle of trees.
The attraction of Odzala is the high concentration of bais, clearings in the woods with salt-rich soils that harbor a variety of plants that prove irresistible. These clearings are not unlike shadowbox dioramas of the forest, giving visitors a front-row seat to activity that would otherwise be shrouded by dense foliage. Ornithologists will be awestruck by the more than 400 bird species that call the park home.
Odzala is experienced in two sections at two fantastic camps, both having just opened in 2012. Lango Camp lies where the savanna meets the marsh on the edges of the Likoli and Mambili Rivers. Ngaga Camp, the second you will visit, is raised on wooden platforms and walkways to capture views of a bai just beyond. The camps are identical in construction, both having been crafted from locally sourced natural materials, bamboo, sustainable hardwoods, and raffia matting. The B’Aka Pygmy groups have inspired the architecture of the spaces, each round in design with one wall left open to act as your window into the wild. Reid remarked that his window was a television of sorts – a 24-hour National Geographic special on Odzala.
Not only does the camps’ isolation make for an intimate experience, but they offer a staff that is genuinely friendly and truly happy to welcome visitors, as they live most of the year in the quiet solitude of the park. Meals at both camps meet exacting standards, with French cuisine prepared by a classically trained chef – just another surprise in the middle of nowhere.
The second leg of Reid’s adventure took him to Tanzania, where he previewed the newest in a long line of outstanding Singita properties – the Mara River Tented Camp. This is the only camp on the river, situated to offer visitors an unmatched view of the Great Migration. Mara River Tented Camp is positioned so that a game drive isn’t even necessary – simply look out from the teak decks of any of the six luxury tents to watch the scene. While spectacular, this seasonal main attraction is not the be-all and end-all for the camp. Resident game is abundant year-round, and Reid saw two lion kills on his trip.
More than 98,000 acres of wilderness surround the camp in the Lamai Triangle of the northern Serengeti, and with the blessing of the Tanzanian government, Singita pounced upon this little-known region of the park to offer discerning travelers the only luxury tented option in the Lamai. Cécile & Boyd’s Interior Design crafted spaces alive with contemporary African design elements and vintage-inspired furnishings. A minimum environmental impact was of utmost importance during the camp’s conception: Power is all solar-generated, and natural and recycled building materials add to the sustainable design.
Singita’s fingerprint of opulence is on every feature at the camp, from the exceptional team of gourmet chefs who serve fine dishes along with homemade ice creams and smoothies, to the incredible plunge pool at the main tent overlooking the river. While it’s possible to while away the hours wrapped in the comforts of camp, a trip into the bush in open-sided vehicles should not be avoided. Lamai is teeming with resident plains game and big cats, and the Mara is home to hippos and crocodiles, ensuring a show on land and in the water for guests who want to explore.
As a first primate experience, a trip to Odzala will enchant and spoil you. Ker & Downey’s Ultimate Africa journey gives you a peek at the diverse environments that shelter Africa’s primates in the Congo Basin and Rwanda’s mountains, plus the spectacle of the Great Migration in the Serengeti. This 22-day jaunt from Odzala to Rwanda to the Serengeti is well suited to the adventuresome who are looking to forge into the wilderness and take in a panorama of Africa’s many varied locales.